Moo-ving on up: interview with Scotland Office minister Douglas Ross
A strange fact about the 2016 intake of new Scottish Conservatives to the Scottish Parliament was that there were more men qualified to collect sperm from bulls elected to Ruth Davidson’s team than there were female MSPs.
And for Douglas Ross, the then newly elected MSP for the Scottish Parliament for the Highland and Islands, it meant he was among friends who shared his passion.
What is it, I tentatively ask him, about Conservatives and cows…?
“Well,” he begins, settling in for what turns out to be a fairly lengthy, astonishingly detailed and enthusiastic exploration of bovine attractions.
“I do a bit of judging of cows at shows and on farms, and I remember when we had the pipe band championships here in Moray, and I said to someone, how can anyone tell the difference between pipe bands and what they like and what they don’t and they said that it’s probably the same way that no one can really understand how you can tell the difference between a good cow and a bad cow.
“It’s just you have an interest, you hone that interest and, you know, I’ve followed that interest throughout my life, and I think obviously because I was brought up on a farm with the cows, that just set me on that course that I’m still interested in now.
“I mean, I make a joke at home that I think the only reason we’ve now got a Dalmatian dog is because he’s black and white like the cows that I was brought up with.
“I do like the Holstein breed more than other dairy breeds and that might be a controversial comment so I might have to make an apology for that later, we’ll see.
“I still remember the names of cows and you can see the personality run through different generations of cows…I’d look at a new heifer calf coming into the milking parlour for the first time and think, her grandmother did the exact same thing when she was milked for the first time.
“So, you have certain cows that always had to be the first one milked in the morning and in the afternoon and you had other cows who always had to be chased in and you had ones that liked to be petted and ones that would run a mile, so they definitely have their own personalities.
“In terms of names, well, the usual one is Daisy and I like Daisy because on the farm where I worked, they had a cow called Highland Mo Daisy Mae and it was the first cow that I saw winning the championship at the Nairn show.
“But if it came down to a single name, it is Roxy, because the first cow I bought who then became classified as ‘excellent’ was this cow called Winton Gibson Roxy and she could be traced back to the International Cow of the Century, Glenridge Citation Rox 3.
“We have a scoring system of cows which is out of 100, but 97 is the unofficial maximum you can get, and she was the first cow in the world to score 97 points. So, Roxy would be my favourite name.”
“Ehm, maybe, I’m opening up a bit too much here,” he laughs, “but do you remember a programme hosted by Matthew Kelly called You Bet! [a TV game show in the early 1990s where the audience bet on the outcome of a variety of unlikely challenges]? Well, I always said to my family that I could have gone on You Bet! and identified every one of our 200 cows on the farm just by looking at their rear udder.
“It’s true. I got that involved in the cows and their personalities and how they look and their markings that I could tell all their numbers and their names just by looking at their back end.”
Trying to bring the conversation back round to politics, I ask Ross if that skill could be put to any good use in the House of Commons. He laughs and says maybe it would be good training for the Speaker of the House.
I like Ross. He’s naturally funny, completely comfortable in his own skin, and genuinely uncontrived when talking about his true passions in life: football and cows.
And for a politician he rather disarmingly talks more about things that he is not good at. But despite the endearing nature of his honesty, you just know that somewhere there will be a press officer pulling at their hair.
And to be fair, his tongue has tripped him up in the past, most notably when he was asked during a quick-fire round of questions for a broadcast interview what he would do if he was prime minister for a day and he said that he would “like to see tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers”.
The comments sparked a human rights storm, with Amnesty International condemning them, saying they would only serve to encourage prejudice and discrimination.
Ross later apologised, saying that there had been no time to provide context to his comments, but he reiterated that the issue of illegal travellers’ camps was an important one in the area that he represented and should be debated without fear of being called a bigot.
He’s a strange mix: someone who loves the art of debate and thinking on his feet but who describes himself as someone who didn’t really excel at anything at school, who laughs at his own inability as a footballer – “I’ve got no coordination; I can’t header a ball; I can’t kick the ball particularly well” – but who became an international football referee, and while he is undoubtedly a consummate politician but says he wasn’t particularly political, after just two years as an MP, he now sits at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government appointed as a junior minister of state in the Scotland Office.
Ross might underplay his own abilities, but he is also someone who should not be underestimated. He says that any politician that says they wouldn’t want to be prime minister is lying.
And senior Scottish Tories have told me that “very early on” Ruth Davidson identified Ross as her most likely future successor from the 2016 intake.
I understand she even headed up to his constituency just before her pregnancy announcement to persuade him to take on the interim deputy leader role during her maternity leave, an offer he passed on at the time, but I’m told that should he ever choose to come back to Holyrood – and now he’s got his own young family (his son Alistair is just over a year old)that may be a more attractive proposition – he could walk into the top job.
So, who is Douglas Ross?
Ross was born and brought up in Moray with his sisters, one older and the other his twin. He lived on the dairy farm which his father ran and went to the school where his mother was the cook.
Ross’s earliest memories are of helping out with the cows before and after school, and that dairy farming was all he ever wanted to do.
“How do I say this diplomatically? Basically, I didn’t excel at school. Both my sisters were really good at languages and I remember I was terrible at French. I hated it.
One sister is now an English teacher and the other one’s a chartered accountant, so they were good at English and maths. I was fine, but I couldn’t be bothered doing homework if it meant I couldn’t go up to the farm, so I think the teachers just knew where my real passion was and that I was very keen on farming.
“I wanted to work on a farm and ultimately have some of my own cows. That was my only interest and that’s why I went to agricultural college in Ayrshire when I could have gone to Aberdeen, which is a lot closer, but Ayrshire was more dairy orientated.
“Some people like big tractors, other people like sheep, I was just really interested in dairy cattle, and Holsteins in particular.
“I just like Holsteins rather than Friesians or Jerseys. I don’t really know why.
“I also think that I always felt in some ways that dairy farming was really very solitary and I liked that.
“I milked cows predominantly on my own and I liked that early morning time when it was just you and the cows.
“I used to play the radio while I was milking and some people suggest it calms the cows down and it allows them to release their milk a bit easier, but I just liked it for a bit of entertainment because you’re in a pit, essentially, at about eye level with the udders, and if you’re looking at 200 udders going past you twice a day, it can sometimes get a bit monotonous.”
Where Ross did excel was on the debating floor. And in 1997 during a school mock election, where he stood as a Lib Dem “because although I didn’t know anything about their policies, I liked Paddy Ashdown,” his sparkling performance won 46 out of the 50 votes.
“My mum kept a copy of the daily notices that went around the school and she got a copy in the kitchen where she was the cook and it said ‘Douglas Ross S3 won a landslide for the Liberal Democrats’.
“I can’t remember much about what I said other than that the Conservatives had been in power for 18 years and it was time for a change.
“I had an Irish English teacher at the time and whenever she said 18 years, she sounded like Ian Paisley and that number just stuck in my mind.”
That early brush with electoral success did not spark any desire in Ross to get more active politically, but back in Moray after graduating from agricultural college and working on a farm along with tending his own half a dozen dairy cows, he was persuaded, having just joined the Conservatives, to stand for the council elections in 2007.
“I hadn’t gone into it thinking I must win this election or I need to start seriously getting into politics. It was more just to help the local party out by having a young candidate in one of the wards where I was living at the time.
“I said I would give it a go and see what happened, and well, as you know, since 2007 I’ve now represented a part of Moray in one way or another for 13 years.
“I honestly had no real political aspirations then at all. I thought politics was something I could think about and hear on the radio as I continued to milk the cows.
“So, farming was still my only priority at that stage. I continued milking the cows throughout the campaigning, but then I unexpectedly got elected, and it was the first time I had been elected to anything.
“The thought of getting up at two in the morning, milking cows, to go to council meetings which started at 9.30 running through to the afternoon, to then go home to milk cows again in the afternoon, to then do work at night for the council, I just thought I wasn’t going to be able to do both jobs to the best of my ability, so I took the decision that I’d been elected for a five year term, people had put their trust in me and I would have to give up farming for potentially just a few years whilst I saw out my term on the council.
“But, as you know, things kind of continued from there and I got re-elected and then elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016 and then to Westminster in 2017.
In between times he met his wife, Krystle, a policewoman, on a blind date in 2010 after she had seen his picture on a campaign poster and mentioned to a colleague, who happened to know Ross, that she liked the look of him.
They married in 2015 on the farm where he had worked and baby Alistair was born in March 2019, an event which meant he missed voting in Theresa May’s second meaningful vote – he had previously voted against her deal – as he rushed from Westminster to the hospital in Elgin and was denied a proxy vote without the requisite 24-hour notice. In the end his one vote made no difference to the result, but it is clear he had frustrations over May’s leadership.
“Honestly, I found it strange that someone like Theresa May, who has dedicated, you know, a large portion of their adult life to reaching the highest office in the land, then had real difficulty in communicating not just with the country, but with politicians like myself, members of her party.
“I think overall, I just found it strange that someone could get to that level, and even considering the amount of pressures and difficulty she had with various different elements of the party in parliament pulling in different directions, I just felt we had come to the stage that we needed a change because the way she operated, which is her personal style, wasn’t the right style for our party or for the country.”
Ross did not initially back Boris Johnson to succeed May – he supported outrider Mark Harper, who was eliminated in the first round – but despite that, he is pleased with the result and now wants Brexit done.
Ross was re-elected to Westminster in the December general election last year and Johnson promoted him to the Scotland Office as a junior minister. Given his political trajectory, I wonder if he has his sights set on higher things?
“I think anyone who comes into politics who says they don’t want their hands on the most levers of power to be able to introduce change is lying.
“Whether they say they don’t want to be prime minister or not, if they had the opportunity to lead their country in the direction they thought was the best for the country they represent, then I think they would take it. That’s why I think everyone should aspire to the very top of whatever profession they are in.”
His boss, the PM, said as a child he wanted to be king of the world. What did Ross aspire to?
“You know, as a child, I just wanted to be king of my own dairy herd, and I almost got there with my six cows before politics took over.
“But you know, we’ve been in this house for five years now and my wife says it’s not our forever home, she wants chickens and things, so whether I get back to having a dairy herd or not, I just don’t know.”